Saturday, January 26, 2008

True Joy is Serious Business

In the 26-27 January edition of the Wall Street Journal, James F. Penrose reviews After the Golden Age by Kenneth Hamilton, a book that traces the change from passionate, individual interpretation of classical music towards dogmatic recital of what is believed to be the composer’s original intent. In describing Mendelssohn’s very strict interpretation of music, Mr. Penrose quotes Seneca: Res severa est verum gaudium. In English: "true joy is a serious business." This is a charge to all parents.

The joy that young children experience knows no bounds. As they grow, that joy is gradually overrun by cynicism. To master that cynicism, and to still experience joy in this world, children must learn to balance discipline with passion. Passion without control is recklessness. Control without passion denies a person the experience of life.

We guide children on this path in everything they do. Mindless execution in pursuit of technical perfection stifles creativity. Performance may be technically excellent, but lacks the soul of the performer. Similarly, execution requires discipline. Performing in the absence of any sense of discipline denies the fact that excellence requires a context. To wit: an unstructured collection of stanzas isn’t a Haiku simply because one asserts that it is; in actual fact, it’s nothing more than a poorly written poem.

Those who achieve this balance can produce works of profound joy. When one hears Seiji Ozawa’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, one hears unquestioned technical talent balanced with aggressive interpretation true to the baroque style. One never hears the piece in the same way again. When one reads Kenneth Yasuda’s thesis on North American Haiku, The Japanese Haiku, one realizes that in the hands of one who is master of language, the rhythm and rhyme of the Haiku is liberation, not limitation. One destroys nearly every Haiku he has written and begins anew. When one hears Benny Goodman’s interpretation of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (K. 622), Mozart’s enthusiasm for the clarinet is uniquely evident in Goodman’s recital. That enthusiasm is immediately conspicuous by its absence in one’s own recital. One sets about re-learning the piece from the first measure. Those among the generation of people in our charge who learn to balance excellence with passion will contribute their own rich interpretations and add to the world's collective experience of life.

It is our responsibility as parents to engender this in our children. The scope of this responsibility goes beyond what it is our children elect to do, it applies to who they are: each individual’s life is a work art, thus a potential source of joy. Guiding a child as she or he masters the tools of the artist in the media of life is serious business indeed.